This page gives a quick overview of different ways that local councils could involve citizens more regularly in the decision making process. It offers introductions to petitions, referendums, participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies.
One of the criticisms of the current process of establishing Devolution Deals is that there is no involvement of local people. It is a decision made by central government having received a bid led by local councils. Local citizens will be able to decide who will become the mayor of the region, but cannot decide whether there should be a mayor in the first place! Critics argue that there is a democratic deficit in local and national politics.
Is there any interest in participation?
Are citizens simply not interested in what happens locally? After all, turnout at local elections rarely makes it above one third of the electorate and the turnout for the new Police Commissioners was even lower.
But perhaps the problem is that there are very few opportunities for citizens to participate in decisions that affect their lives. If meaningful opportunities existed, citizens would be more likely to engage.
Beyond traditional consultation
Councils often hold consultations over local decisions. Citizens are invited to send an email or attend a meeting. But very few do; and even when they do engage, they feel that their views are not listened to. An alternative is to use opinion polls. But very often people don’t know much about the questions they are being asked. How could local citizen participation be organised better by local councils?
Until recently, local councils were required to have a petition system. That rule was abolished by the Localism Act 2011. But many local councils still have a petition process in place.
Petitions allow people to gather signatures in support of a proposal asking the council to take action on a local issue. Some petition systems only require one signature; others require a percentage of the local population to support the proposal. Local councils consider a petition and explain how they are going to act. They do not have to follow the petition proposal. The only area where councils are required to act on a petition is if 5 per cent of the local population request a referendum on a directly elected mayor (see next section).
Petitions are a relatively simple form of participation, but they can put issues on the council agenda that have been overlooked.
Referendums put proposals to a vote across the entire local electorate. Most referendums that take place in the UK are advisory: the local council does not have to follow the result. That said, it is quite hard to ignore a referendum result where there is a clear majority vote.
There are some areas where councils are required to hold referendums and are required to act on the outcome:
- if 5% of local electors petition the council for a referendum on whether there should be an elected mayor
- if the council wishes to raise council tax 2% or more above the level of the previous year
A referendum can be organised by a parish council (with the support of a local council) where it is demanded by not less than ten, or one-third, of the local government electors present at a parish council meeting.
Participatory budgeting (PB) enables local people to decide on the distribution of parts of the council budgets. PB was first established in the Brazilian city Porto Alegre in 1989, but has spread all over the world. A number of PBs have been run in England, including in parts of Hampshire and Yorkshire. Currently the Scottish Government is promoting a programme of PB across local areas.
In Latin America, local people often make decisions on significant proportions of the council budget (around $160 million in 2000 in Porto Alegre, with thousands of people participating). In comparison, PB in the UK has typically been rather limited: with local voluntary groups competing for funding of a few thousand pounds for local improvements.
One of the criticisms of traditional consultation is that only the ‘usual suspects’ (those particularly interested in local politics) bother to engage. Citizens’ assemblies, like the one you are participating in, change that by selecting participants by random selection. This means that a more diverse group of people that is very similar to the broader population come together to learn about, discuss and make recommendations on a particular issue of local concern. Some local councils have experimented with citizens’ juries – a very similar method. Citizens’ assemblies are ways of finding out the considered views of local people, rather than their raw opinions through opinion polls.
The impact of new technology
The internet could make democratic participation easier. But evidence suggests that it has not yet had much effect – we are much more interested in using the internet for entertainment or service delivery.
A duty to encourage participation?
Many local councils have experimented with different ways of engaging local citizens, but it is not done consistently. Local councils could be required by law to use one or more of these mechanisms on a more regular basis.